Between 1922 and 1934, renowned British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley was working on the most important dig of his career. The excavation project took place in southern Iraq, which was once the heart of ancient Mesopotamia and the cradle of civilisation.
Under the blazing heat of the desert, Woolley worked in the ruins of the Sumerian City state of Ur. There he would uncover every archaeologists’ fantasy; a previously untouched tomb, the likes of which had not been seen since the treasures of Tutankhamun.
The tomb of Puabi had not been disturbed like so many others nearby, and so still contained everything she had been buried with – a fortune.
It was clear that Puabi had been an extremely wealthy woman in life. There were piles of gold jewellery, elaborate gold leaf headdresses, beads of carnelian and lapis lazuli, rings, earrings, golden dinnerwear, a beautiful silver plated lyre, jewelled hairpins, bracelets and pots of cosmetics.
On top of this, Puabi had been buried with no less than fifty-two attendants; ritual sacrifices to serve her in the afterlife, each dressed as elaborately as their mistress.
Today, Puabi’s headdress is an iconic and visceral connection to the lady herself. It would have been supported by a very large, black wool wig, giving us a clear idea of how Puabi looked when she was alive – dressed in the height of Sumerian fashion.
Puabi was approximately forty when she died and a Semitic Akkadian rather than a native Sumerian. Other than these sparse facts, we know very little about who Puabi was. Her cylinder seal tells us that her title was Puabi Nin – which might mean she was either a Priestess or a Queen.
What is interesting about Puabi’s seal is that it does not refer to any man. Usually we would expect to find reference to a woman’s father or husband in burials from this time.
The absence of male presence indicates that whoever Puabi was, she had wealth and status in her own right.
- A cylinder seal is a small round cylinder, typically about one inch in legnth, engraved with written characters or figurative scenes or both, used to roll an impression onto a surface – usually wet clay. This acted as a signature for high status people.
- Some sources refer to Puabi as Shub-Ad based on an earlier mistranslation.
- I am very grateful to Leonard Woolley’s wife, Katherine Woolley, who is responsible for creating the model head of Puabi which served as the inspiration for my embroidered portrait.
Penn Museum – Dressing Queen Puabi (with video)
Ur of the Chaldees – Sir Leonard Woolley
The Take Back Halloween Project has an excellent page on dressing up as Puabi!